Halloween and the Mexican Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) are just around the corner, and it just so happens that I am putting a class together about Maya royalty and nobles. As part of this class we are learning to make funerary mosaic masks from clay and paper. Incorporating a Maya funerary mask into a Mesoamerican style costume is a wonderful option for Halloween. Meanwhile, making Maya masks with children this time of the year is a great activity because it can inspire discussions about the Mesoamerican world and also the history and associated meanings of Halloween and other related ancient traditions. Both Halloween and the Day of the Dead are holidays that have evolved from ancient ceremonies held in different parts of the northern hemisphere that marked the end of summer and the transition to the colder months. During this liminal phase, it was believed that the veil between our world and that of the departed was thin and communication and movement between them was possible (e.g. Green 2011, 11; Gillespie 2002). Maya masks are an object that are symbolically linked to such themes as ancestor worship and masks as symbols of transformation. From an artistic perspective, this activity also can introduce children to techniques, such as mosaics.
What is a Maya Funerary Mask?
In the Maya world, funerary face masks were highly symbolic objects and played an important role in rituals that marked the death of Maya royals, and perhaps their transformation and ‘fusion’ with important deities, such as the god of maize. As Maya scholar, Karl Taube (2006, 266) observed, in Maya thought, deities that were analogous, such as sky and rain gods, were able to merge into each other. Occasionally, Maya rulers designated animals, such as jaguar (Panthera onca), the big cat of the rainforest, as their ‘spirit-doubles’ (Eberl 2006, 313). Meanwhile, there are objects recorded archaeologically, such as jade containers from the city of Tikal, Guatemala, that depict rulers dressed with death masks as the maize god (Wagner 2006, 67). Over time, archaeologists have recovered mosaic masks from elite tombs located in Maya cities, such as Palenque, Mexico and Waka-Peru, Guatemala. These have been found with the remains of both men and women. The condition of the masks has varied; masks have been found intact, while others, such as that of the Red Queen of Palenque, were in pieces and have been reconstructed subsequently. Masks are made of mosaic tiles of green and blue stone, such as turquoise, malachite and jade. Shell and obsidian were also used. Maya artisans processed stone with a basic tool kit that included saws of slate or flat hardwood and it was inscribed with knives knapped from obsidian cores (Wagner 2006, 66). Blue and green were also sacred colour to the Maya, as they associated with life-giving water and the rainforest.
One famous mask recovered archaeologically is that of Lord Kinich Jannab Pakal of Palenque, a Maya city located in Chiapas, Mexico. Lord Pakal is one of most well known personalities of the Classic Maya world (Mathews n.d., accessed 2017). In 1952, Alberto Ruz Lhuillier (1992), a Mexican archaeologist, recovered the mask from a large limestone box in a sealed chamber within the Temple of Inscriptions accessed by a secret staircase. Notably, the box had been secured with a lid that was intricately carved with a visual narrative depicting Lord Pakal falling into the underworld, Xibalba, as the god of maize (Schele and Mathews 1998, 111—17). The mosaic mask, made of jade, shell and obsidian, was found in one piece, placed over the face of an adult male (Figure 2). It is possible that this person was Lord Pakal himself (Schele and Mathews 1998). The man had also been ‘dressed’ with other objects, including jade bracelets and necklaces, rings and ear spools inscribed with symbols representing Chak, the Maya rain god. A rectangular object made of pyrite, hematite and shell was found in his mouth (Schele and Mathews 1998, 125—29). The placement of this stone could represent the ‘catching’ of the ‘breath-soul’ of the deceased, a ritual that was recorded by church officials after the Spanish conquest (Gillespie 2001; Taube 2006, 272). The Maya believed that the breath was a manifestation of the soul and this was also related to wind, smell, sound and the burning of copal, incense made from the resin from the tree, Protium copal (Burseraceae) (Taube 2006, 272).
What Do You Need to Make Your Own Mask?
For my own mask, I drew inspiration from a funerary mask held in the Campeche Regional Museum, in southwest Mexico. This example features a nose plug and serpentine-shaped teeth. To make your own Mayan-style funerary mask, you will need the following items:
- Air-drying clay, approximately 250 grams for each mask. An additional small ball of clay will be need for the nose plug, teeth and eyes;
- Face mould. I used a plastic face mask I found in a local art and craft store;
- Green and blue paper;
- Liquid adhesive (PVA glue or Liquitex);
- Black or burnt sienna, white, blue and green acrylic paint;
- Paint tray;
- Wooden board;
- Paint brush;
- Rolling pin; and,
This activity will require at least one day, as the clay face needs to dry for around 24 hours.
How to Make the Mask
The first step is to make the face. After manipulating and softening the clay with your hands to make it more pliable, roll it into a large ball and, with a rolling pin, flatten it until is around 50mm thick and is around 15cm by 15cm. Place the clay onto the mould and gently rub it into the mask until you are happy with the shape of the nose, eyes and mouth (Figure 3).
If you find that you have not rolled enough clay to cover the mould, you can add additional small layers of clay. Simply roll them into little sausages and then smooth them unto the mask. Set the clay face aside for at least 24 hours, or until completely dry.
Decorating the Mask
To make the eyes, teeth and nose plug, use the small ball of clay. These pieces can be made and attached while the clay mask is drying. You can always make these after the mask has been painted. In this case, you will need to glue to attach them to the dry mask. For the eyes, roll 2cm x 1cm balls of clay. Flattened each one and mould them into a circular shape around the size of a 20cm piece and then pinch the two sides to turn them into the shape of an almond. Press your thump in the middle to create a lip around the eye (Figure 4). Then take another small amount and press a small flat circle and add it to the eye, attaching it by rubbing the edge with a smooth tool or even the back of a paint brush.
To make the teeth, roll a small amount of clay into a shape of a tiny sausage, about 20-30mm wide, and flatten it with your fingers and then cut it into small rectangles. To make the nose plug roll another small sausage of clay and then press the centre so that it forms a rectangular shape. Bend the edges of the clay upward so that the piece looks like a ‘U’. Roll in your hands two small balls, flatten them into circles and attach them to the centre of the U-shaped piece. If the clay face is still wet, you can adhere small clay pieces on the mask and then set it aside for a day.
The next stage is to paint the mask. Pour green and blue paint into your tray. I squeezed these colours into the same pan so I could blend them to achieve a more mottled appearance. Paint the mask. While the paint is drying, make the mosaic paper tiles by cutting strips of blue and green paper of various heights; mine were between 0.5cm and 1cm. Then cut the strips into rectangles and squares of various sizes. If you are working with young children, they may prefer to use larger tiles.
Once the paint is dry, glue the tiles onto the face. PVA glue can be used, but if you wish for a shiny surface, you can also use transparent Liquitex, as it also acts as a varnish (Figure 6). Once they are dry, paint the eyes black or dark brown and white.
Now, you are ready to become a Maya ancestor! Happy Halloween from Team Ancient Explorer!
Erbel, M. Death and Conceptions of the Soul. Maya. Divine Kings of the Rainforest. Edited by Nikolai Grube. Konigswinter, Germany: Konemann, pp.311—318.
Gillespie, S. 2002. Body and Soul among the Maya: Keeping the Spirits in Place, Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 11(1): 66—68.
Green, M. The Gods of the Celts. Stroud: The History Press.
Mathews, P. n.d. Who’s Who in the Classic Maya World, FAMSI: Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, accessed 22 October 2017, http://research.famsi.org/whos_who/pm_index.php.
Ruz Lhuillier, A. 1992. El Templo de las Inscripciones. Palenque. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Schele, Linda; Mathews, Peter (1998). The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs. New York: Touchstone.
Taube, K. 2006. The Classic Maya Gods. Maya. Divine Kings of the Rainforest. Edited by Nikolai Grube. Konigswinter, Germany: Konemann,, pp. 263—277.
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